Afraid of cicadas? How about 'zombie cicadas'?

Posted at 5:14 PM, Jun 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-11 21:42:32-04

If cicadas are a point of anxiety or fear for you, click out of this story now. That's because this story is about "zombie cicadas."

The Tri-State is at the height of the once-every-17-years Brood X cicada invasion, but this time around, there's a relatively new phenomenon taking hold of the bugs: a fungus that alters their behavior and eventually causes their bodies to fall apart.

Some have dubbed them "zombie cicadas," as reported by CNN last year, describing the disembodied behavior the insects exhibit under the influence of the psychedelic fungus.

Every one of the billions of cicadas that have emerged this year are susceptible to Massospora, which produces an amphetamine compound that has and will continue to affect a small number of the insects this summer. The infection causes cicadas to lose control of their already heightened sex drive and eventually cause their bodies to erupt and ooze a white substance.

"The periodical cicadas get a fungal disease," said Dr. Gene Kritsky of Mount St. Joseph University, the nation's premiere cicada expert. "It's a rather shocking thing that happens. It makes them extremely amorous."

The final result, though: "The trouble is when the fungus matures, it causes this whole tip of his abdomen to fall off so the genitalia are gone."

But not before they can "mate like crazy," according to Matt Kasson, an associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University, who spoke with NPR last month.

Kasson, who has studied the fungus for the last five years, said the infection occurs before the cicadas emerge and is considered a sexually transmitted disease.

Kritsky said up to a quarter of Brood X cicadas will succumb to the fungus this summer.

The fungus can also result in some gender-bending, he said.

"What's really crazy, though, is that if he hears a male calling, the fungal infected cicada pretends he's a female to lure that male in to mate with him."